Archives for category: District of Columbia

Chris Whittle is relentless in his determination to prove that education can be a profitable business. More than 30 years ago, he launched the Edison Project. He spent millions on a design phase, hiring a team of experts to write a new curriculum. He even persuaded the President of Yale University, Benno Schmidt, to resign and lead his new company. Whittle assumed that George H.W. Bush would be re-elected in 1992 and would get Congress to pass a voucher program.

No vouchers in hand, the Edison Project contracted with districts to take over troubled schools and manage them. For a time, business was booming. Edison’s stock price soared to nearly $40 a share. But when results came in, and when districts cancelled contracts, the stock price collapsed to $0.14. Eventually, the Edison Project turned into EdisonLearning. Samuel Abrams wrote a book about the rise and fall of the Edison Project called Education and the Commercial Mindset.

Undaunted, Whittle started an international chain of for-profit private schools, called Avenues, in gorgeous new buildings with illustrious leaders. Tuition ($40,000-50,000) compared favorably to elite private schools. Although he lived grandly, he lost money. Before long, the board and the investors pushed him out.

Time for a new venture. Whittle has an apparently bottomless pool of rich investors, and they backed him again in creating the Whittle School & Studios. His ambitions were huge, planning a large chain in China.

But now the D.C. flagship of his latest venture just announced it is closing.

The Whittle School & Studios is shutting down its full-time campus in Washington this fall, suspending operations at the U.S. branch of what had been envisioned as a global private school on multiple continents.

The announcement to Whittle families Friday evening came after many months of financial turmoil at the ambitious for-profit enterprise launched by veteran education entrepreneur Chris Whittle.

He said they made the decision late Thursday after learning that a critical financing deal had been delayed.

The decision leaves students, teachers and staff in Washington scrambling just weeks before the next school year….

The Whittle School launched with a September 2019 opening in the Chinese coastal city of Shenzhen, followed days later by the debut of a Northwest Washington campus in a neighborhood full of embassies and private schools. The school on Connecticut Avenue hoped to one day serve 2,000 day and boarding students, ranging in age from prekindergarten through high school, with a tuition of more than $40,000 a year. It ended this school year with fewer than 130 students and 14 graduating seniors.


Whittle said the endeavor was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, as travel, in-person learning and cultural exchanges were suspended and financing faltered.

What’s next for Chris Whittle? Never count him out.

Mercedes Schneider writes here about the plight of two experienced Black educators who were fired by District of Columbia officials for refusing to adopt a scripted “no excuses” program developed by the Relay “Graduate School of Education.” I put scare quotes around the last four words because Relay is not really a graduate school of any kinds. It was created by a group of charter chains to teach the methods favored by charter schools—strict discipline, no-excuses, and the pedagogical strategies to raise test scores. Unlike real graduate schools, it has no campus, no library, no faculty with earned doctorates, no programs in research and the social sciences.

The educators—one of them a veteran principal—objected to the Relay approach and thought it contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline. They were fired, and they are suing, all out of their own pockets. I will help them as best I can. Tom Ultican write about them here.

Schneider wrote:

Below are excerpts fron a lawsuit put forth by two former employees of DC’s Boone Elementary School, who took issue with DC Public Schools (DCPS) higher admin wishing to impose controversial scripted and harsh practices at the direction of the so-named Relay Graduate School of Education (“graduate school” as a brand name and worth as much as my legally changing my own name to “Mercedes Schneider, MD” to deceptively promote the idea that I practice medicine).

Former Boone principal, Carolyn Jackson-King, repeatedly voiced her concerns about DCPS pooling lower-income, predominately Black schools under the jurisdiction of Relay and the fact that the administrator overseeing this requirement was formerly with “no excuses” KIPP schools (as in highly-scripted conformity at the expense of developing critical thinking and self-value for low-income students). Jackson-King even collected data to support no need for this concocted “Relay remediation” plan for Boone students, to no avail. Within one year, she was brought from being a principal deemed worthy of mentoring others to one released from her duties as principal and given the lowest rating of her career.

Fellow Boone employee and director of strategy and logistics, Marlon Ray, was arguably singled out and punitively required to work in person throughout the pre-vaccination period of COVID and later terminated due to “reduction in force” after he filed a 2020 whistleblower suit with the Office of Inspector General (OIG) about Relay, including contracts and payments under two distinct codings and that did not line up.

Jackson-King and Ray are suing DCPS and requesting a jury trial “to remedy the effects of the illegal conduct described [in the suit]” and to “award damages for back pay and other monetary losses” incurred by DCPS “[having] violated the provisions of District of Columbia law recited [in the suit].”

The lawsuit itself is 35 pages long and is posted at the end of this piece. I wish I could post the entire document as I believe it is worth a full read for its value on many fronts, including how those in education reform are able to all-too-quickly position themselves in upper administration and through their connections promote other entites selling ill-informed ideas that are contrary to sound educational practice; how such education businesses are often particularly positioned to prey on lower income students and students of color; how genuinely concerned, career-invested stakeholders are often wrongfully punished for voicing their concerns and seeking remedy (including being told that the issue should be kept “in house,” a strategy also often employed by domestic abusers), and how the underdog often has to pay out of pocket to seek relief in the courts.

Please continue reading. The educators acted ethically. The district punished them for acting ethically.

Tom Ultican, chronicler of the Destroy Public Education movement and retired teacher of physics and advanced mathematics, investigated a strange occurrence in the District of Columbia: Two respected, experienced black educators were fired for refusing to adopt the practices of the so-called Relay “Graduate School” of Education. Relay is not a real graduate school. It has no campus, no research, no graduate programs. It was created by charter schools and recognized by their allies so that charter teachers could teach the tricks of raising test scores to other charter teachers and enable them to get a “master’s degree” from people who had never earned doctorate degrees. Relay’s textbook is Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion.” Relay does not offer the wide range of courses offered in real graduate schools.

He begins:

School leaders and teachers in Washington DC’s wards 7 and 8 are being forced into training given by Relay Graduate School of Education (RSGE). West of the Anacostia River in the wealthier whiter communities public school leader are not forced. When ward 7 and 8 administrators spoke out against the policy, they were fired. Two of them Dr. Carolyn Jackson-King and Marlon Ray, formerly of Boone Elementary School are suing DC Public Schools (DCPS) for violating the Whistleblower Protection Act and the DC Human Rights Act.

Jackson-King and Ray are emblematic of the talented black educators with deep experience that are being driven out of the Washington DC public school system. They are respected leaders in the schools and the community. When it was learned Jackson-King was let go the community protested loudly and created a web site publishing her accomplishments.

In 2014, Jackson-King arrived at the Lawrence E. Boone Elementary school when it was still named Orr Elementary. The school had been plagued by violence and gone through two principals the previous year. Teacher Diane Johnson recalled carrying a bleeding student who had been punched to the nurse’s office. She remembered fighting being a daily occurrence before Jackson-King took over.

In 2018, Orr Elementary went through a $46 million dollar renovation. The community and school board agreed that the name should be changed before the building reopened. Orr was originally named in honor of Benjamin Grayson Orr, a D.C. mayor in the 19th century and slave owner. The new name honors Lawrence Boone a Black educator who was Orr Elementary’s principal from 1973 to 1996.

Jackson-King successfully navigated the campus violence and new construction. By 2019, Boon Elementary was demonstrating solid education progress as monitored by the district’s star ratings. Boone Elementary is in a poor minority neighborhood. It went from a 1-star out of 5 rating when Jackson-King arrived to a 3-star rating her last year there….

Marlon Ray was Boone’s director of strategy and logistics. He worked there for 13-years including the last six under Principal Jackson-King. Despite his long history in the district, Ray was apparently targeted after filing a whistleblower complaint over Relay Graduate School. Ray questioned RGSE’s relationship with DCPS, the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. He implicated Mary Ann Stinson, the DCPS Cluster II instructional superintendent who wrote Jackson-King’s district Impact review that paved the way for her termination. In the lawsuit, Ray alleges that DCPS leadership responded by requiring him to work in person five days a week in the early months of the pandemic while most of his colleagues, including Jackson-King’s replacement Kimberly Douglas, worked remotely. This continued well into the spring of 2021.

In October of 2020, Ray joined with about 30 Washington Teacher’s Union members, parents and students to rally against opening school before it was safe. Ray reported that he received a tongue lashing from a DCPS administrator for being there and then 2-hours later receive a telephoned death threat. He reports the caller saying, “This is Marcus from DCPS; you’re done, you’re through, you’re finished, you’re dead.”

Ray’s position was eliminated in June, 2021…

In Washington DC, the mayor has almost dictatorial power over public education. Therefore, when the mayor becomes convinced of the illusion that public schools are failing, there are few safeguards available to stop the policy led destruction.

In the chart above, notice that all of the key employees she chose to lead DC K-12 education have a strong connection to organizations practicing what Cornell Professor Noliwe Rooks labeled “segrenomics.” In her book Cutting School (Page 2), she describes it as the businesses of taking advantage of separate, segregated, and unequal forms of education to make a profit selling school. Bowser’s first Deputy Mayor for Education, Jennifer Niles, was a charter school founder. Her second Deputy Mayor, Paul Kihn, attended the infamous school privatization centric Broad Academy. She inherited Kaya Henderson as DCPS Chancellor and kept her for five years. Kaya Henderson, a Teach For America alum, was the infamous Michelle Rhee’s heir apparent. The other two Chancellors that Bowser chose, Antwan Wilson and Lewis Ferebee, also attended the Broad Academy and both are members of Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change….

The State Superintendent of Education who awarded $7.5 million in public education dollars to five private companies was Hanseul Kang. Before Bowser appointed her to the position Kang was a member of the Broad Residency class of 2012-2014. At that time, she was serving as Chief of Staff for the Tennessee Department of Education while her fellow Broadie, Chris Barbic, was setting up the doomed to fail Tennessee Achievement School District. In 2021, Bowser had to replace Kang because she became the inaugural Executive Director of the new Broad Center at Yale. Bowser chose Christina Grant yet another Broad trained education privatization enthusiast to replace Kang.

For background information on the Broad Academy see Broad’s Academy and Residencies Fuel the Destroy Public Education Agenda.)

Bowser and her team are in many ways impressive, high achieving and admirable people. However, their deluded view of public education and its value is dangerous; dangerous for K-12 education and dangerous for democracy.

“Teach like it is 1885”

The root of the push back against Relay training by ward 7 and 8 educators is found in the authoritarian approach being propagated. NPR listed feedback from dismayed teachers bothered by instructions such as:

  • “Students must pick up their pens within three seconds of starting a writing assignment.
  • “Students must walk silently, in a straight line, hands behind their backs, when they are outside the classroom.
  • “Teachers must stand still, speak in a ‘formal register’ and square their shoulders toward students when they give directions.”

Dr. Jackson-King noted“Kids have to sit a certain way, they have to look a certain way. They cannot be who they are. Those are all the ways they teach you in prison — you have to walk in a straight line, hands behind your back, eyes forward.”

RSGE does not focus on education philosophy or guidance from the world’s foremost educators. Rather its fundamental text is Teach Like a Champion which is a guidebook for no excuses charter schools.

In her book Scripting the Moves Professor Joanne Golann wrote:

No excuses charter school founders established RGSE. In the post “Teach Like its 1885.” published by Jenifer Berkshire, Layla Treuhaft-Ali wrote, “Placed in their proper racial context, the Teach Like A Champion techniques can read like a modern-day version of the *Hampton Idea,* where children of color are taught not to challenge authority under the supervision of a wealthy, white elite….”

‘“Ultimately no-excuses charters schools are a failed solution to a much larger social problem,’ education scholar Maury Nation has argued. ‘How does a society address systemic marginalization and related economic inequalities? How do schools mitigate the effects of a system of White supremacy within which schools themselves are embedded?’ Without attending to these problems, we will not solve the problems of educational inequality. ‘As with so many school reforms,’ Nation argues, ‘no-excuses discipline is an attempt to address the complexities of these problems, with a cheap, simplistic, mass-producible, ‘market-based’ solution.’” (Page 174)

Legitimate education professionals routinely heap scorn on RSGE. Relay practices the pedagogy of poverty and as Martin Haberman says,

“In reality, the pedagogy of poverty is not a professional methodology at all. It is not supported by research, by theory, or by the best practice of superior urban teachers. It is actually certain ritualistic acts that, much like the ceremonies performed by religious functionaries, have come to be conducted for their intrinsic value rather than to foster learning.”

So these two courageous black professionals were fired for refusing to accept the harsh “no excuses” pedagogy designed for black children, designed to make them servile and obedient.

Their jobs should be promptly restored. Mayor Bowser has been captured by the forces of privatization and conformity. She should wake up. Some of the “no excuses” charter schools have recognized the harm they do to black children by treating them as clay to be molded, instead of human beings with vitality and interests who need to discover their talents and the joy of learning.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and a member of the board of the Network for Public Education, wrote “a short history” of the rise and meteoric fall of Seth Andrews. He founded a no-excuses charter chain called Democracy Prep, which received adulatory praise from the media and millions of dollars in grants from foundations and the federal government. He moved in the top Ed reform circles. He knew all the key players. He was one of them.

After Andrews invited Leonie to tour his charter school, she wrote:

I found him an intriguing character, obsessively throwing a rubber ball against the wall while we walked through the halls of the school, and never taking off his baseball hat though the network had a rigid dress code for students, who were forbidden to wear hats, wear the wrong color socks or the wrong kind of belt.  When we were touring the school, he stopped one student in the hall and berated her for having her Uggs showing. I wondered how long he would last at his own charter school before being suspended or pushed out.  I later learned that his baseball hat was something of a calling card for Seth, and it is even mentioned in the indictment document.

Democracy Prep  is a “no excuses” charter chain, known for its strict disciplinary practices and high attrition rates.  I questioned him about their demerit system which called for keeping students after school for small lapses of behavior, to sit in a room silently, without being able to read or do homework.

But then he was arrested for embezzlement of more than $200,000 from the bank accounts of the charter he founded. His schools were allegedly teaching civic virtue. He is not an exemplar of civic virtue, nor of following the rigid rules he set for his students.

Valerie Strauss posted an important essay on her blog “The Answer Sheet” by Steve Bumbaugh, a former member of the D.C. Public Charter School Board from 2015 until early this year. Bumbaugh graduated from Yale University and Stanford School of Business. His parents were ministers.

He writes:

Let’s travel back to September 2017. I was in Southeast Washington, D.C., scheduled to tour a school in an hour. I remember visiting 25 years ago when it was part of the D.C. public school system. That school was closed in 2009 — one of dozens closed in the last 15 years — and now several charter schools occupy the campus.

At the time of this visit, I was a member of board of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB), having started my tenure in 2015 and serving until early this year. In that capacity, I visited dozens of D.C.-based charter schools. Sometimes, I left those visits saddened, even defeated.

This was one of those times.

Over several decades of work at the intersection of education and poverty, I have learned that much of a school’s character can be divined through its start-of-the-day ritual. So on that day in 2017, I arrived early and sat in my car, far enough away that no one seemed to notice me, but near enough so that I could observe the comings and goings. Several young Black women arrived at school with their children who look to be 5 or 6 years old. They were greeted by staff members, and I observed them having what appeared to be tense conversations with the women. Some of these women left with their children in tow. Others handed their children over to staff members and departed.

When I entered the school for my scheduled visit, I was greeted by one of the founders, a 30-something man with energy and charm. He was joined by the school’s board chair, a distinguished senior partner from one of D.C.’s blue-chip law firms. They took me on a tour of several classrooms. I noticed that the leadership of the school was entirely White as were many of the teachers. All of the students were African American, most from families that struggle financially.

For the most part, the school looked like most other “no excuses” charter schools in the nation’s capital, dotting low-income African American neighborhoods, and in other places across the country.

These schools start with the belief that there is no good reason for the huge academic gaps between privileged and poor minority students — and that strict discipline, obedience, uniform teaching methods and other policies could erase the gaps. A feature of many of these schools, and one evident on this site visit, are lines painted on the hallway floors. Students are expected to walk on these lines as they move from classroom to classroom. Any deviation is likely to result in punishment. The only other places I had seen this before was at correctional facilities.

I entered a preschool classroom where students were gathered in a semi-circle on a rug. Like curious 4-year-olds everywhere, the students turned their heads to scrutinize us. Many smiled widely and some even waved. The teacher snapped at the children, demanding their attention. I was startled by her aggression. They were, after all, 4-year old children engaging in age-appropriate behavior.

That evening I called a staff person from this school who I’ve known for several years. I asked her to translate the scenes I witnessed outside the school. The conversation went something like this:

–“Those scholars probably had uniform violations. The staff persons were probably telling the moms to go home to have the kids change.”

–“I didn’t notice that they were wearing anything different from the other children.”

–“Well, they may have had the wrong color shoes. Or maybe they had the correct color shirt, but it didn’t have the school’s insignia on it.”

–“They have to go back home for that?”

–“Unless they want to spend the day in a behavior support room.”

Incredulous, I pressed my friend for details. I discovered that children as young as 3 years old could spend an entire day in seclusion, away from their classmates, if they were wearing the wrong color shoes. I am dumbstruck. Is this even legal?
This sort of interaction between students and staff was not uncommon in no-excuses charter schools I visited over the years.

Occasionally I did visit schools that combine academic rigor and kindness with student bodies that are mostly Black and low-income. But those schools were the exception. I’ve seen schools where children are taught to track the teachers with their eyes, move their mouths in a specific way, and engage in other humiliating rituals that have little educational value.

I visited a school that suspended 40 percent of its 5-year-old children who had been diagnosed with disabilities. At some schools, when children are sick, their parents were forced to produce a doctor’s note because school leaders believed the parents were lying. But some of these parents were uninsured and there weren’t — and still aren’t — many doctors in their neighborhoods. Obtaining a doctor’s note required them to take their children onto packed public buses so they could go to public health clinics or emergency rooms.

Schools that still do this are telling these parents that they are not trusted. And while children in these schools are taught computational math and textual analysis, they also learn that they are congenitally profane.

Charter schools arose a generation ago in Washington, D.C. when the city was poor and in the grips of a decade-long homicide epidemic. I was part of a group of 20-somethings frustrated with the lack of progress in the city’s long-troubled public school system. We had been creating programs for the D.C. Public Schools system that dramatically outpaced the district’s regular academic outcomes, and we wanted to turn these programs into actual schools.

We talked about forging solutions with parents and students, working to retain every single student, exhorting patience about building the infrastructure from which improved academic outcomes would spring.

But little of this vision was attractive to an emerging cadre of funders and policymakers who placed huge bets on charter schools. They submitted to a vision, not based on a shred of evidence, that Black and Brown children would thrive if they were taught “character” and “grit.” The way to do this, apparently, was to create an assembly-line model of instruction with rigid rules. Children who could not abide by these rules were “counseled out” to return to traditional public schools. Now about one-third of D.C. charter schools are in the no-excuses category, enrolling at least half of the charter student population. (Some of these schools say they are changing, but I haven’t seen real evidence of that.)…

The D.C. Public Charter School Board was created in 1996, at a time when homicide rates in the District were so high the city was dubbed the “murder capital.” It is no wonder the D.C. Public Charter School Board jumped on the “no-excuses” bandwagon.

What have we gained from this system? As of 2018-19 — the latest data available on the website of the charter school board website — only 8.5 percent of Black high school students (about 80 percent of the student population) in charter schools were deemed proficient in math and 21 percent in English Language Arts, according to scores on the standardized PARCC exam.

There are some charter schools that are doing amazing work, but the system itself is ineffective. The vast majority of our students are not remotely ready for the rigors of college coursework.

After untold millions of dollars of investment and the creation of scores of schools — there were 128 operating this year — it is time for us to admit that this experiment is not working as it should.
So what must be done?

The District must rethink its charter schools, and more specifically, charter schools must be integrated. “Chocolate City” has been replaced by a city where upper-income White residents and a more diverse spectrum of Black residents exist in equal numbers.

One of the few scalable policies that dramatically improved academic outcomes for Black students was the integration of American public schools in the 1970s and ’80s. The Performance Management Framework that ranks the quality of each charter school should ensure that schools reflect the demographics of the city as it is today, particularly given that charter schools are not constrained by neighborhood boundaries that enforce segregation in traditional public schools…

“Separate and equal” should not stand in one of the most liberal cities in the United States.

In addition to recommending the racial integration of charter schools, Bumbaugh proposes that low-income parents of charter schools students be added to the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

Moreover power needs to be distributed more evenly. At first glance, the concentration of institutional power is not evident at the Public Charter School Board.

Most of the board members, including the current executive director, are Black or Latino. A closer look — and I am including myself in this observation — reveals that we are not remotely similar to most of the families with children attending D.C. public charter schools. Fully 80 percent of these families are African Americans who qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is not the same as at risk, but which is generally seen as a proxy for school poverty.

The people who are on the charter school board are highly educated professionals. Since I began serving on the panel — which has seven rotating volunteers, all appointed by the D.C. mayor — there have been 10 sitting members, half of whom attended Yale, Stanford or Harvard universities, or some combination of the three. We are well-versed in the contours of institutional power and know how to operate inside of its rarely articulated but clearly delineated boundaries. We’ve been rewarded for decoding these rules and abiding by them, which is precisely why we are selected for these coveted roles. We provide cover through optical diversity.

But if we really want to embrace equity, it’s time to rethink the make-up of the Public Charter School Board. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser will have a unique opportunity to reshape this board over the coming year as five of its seven members will be termed out.

We need a board with members who reflect the communities served by D.C. charter sector. As cities move away from elected school boards to mayoral appointments, it’s critical that the voices that used to represent low-income communities continue to be present.

In the District, 80 percent of families attending charters are eligible for free and reduced lunch, but the charter school board has not in its 25-year history appointed a single board member who lives in poverty. Why not adjust the PCSB’s contours to reflect the communities in which these schools are located instead of incessantly asking poor Black people to acclimate?

Imagine that: Charter schools authorized by those most affected by them.

Peter Greene wonders if you have missed Michelle Rhee, once the Wonder Woman of the edreform biz, but recently absent from the national scene. After her meteoric rise to national prominence, when she was selected to be chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools after two years of TFA teaching, she was a colossus: on the cover of TIME as a miracle worker, featured in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” frequently interviewed on national TV. Her tenure in D.C. was controversial and stormy: she fired teachers and principals and made bold claims about test scores. When Adrian Fenty, the mayor who appointed her, was defeated, she left and started an organization called StudentsFirst, which she said would raise $1 billion and recruit one million members. she never reached either goal, but she traveled the country advocating for charters and vouchers and against teachers’ unions. She allied with Jeb Bush and other school choice advocates. as her star faded, she disappeared from public view.

Peter Greene says she is making a return public appearance at a Sacramento State University event on September27, where she is the keynote speaker. You can watch on Zoom.

Valerie Jablow is a parent advocate in the District of Columbia. Here she remembers Elizabeth Davis, the president of the Washington Teachers Union, who died tragically in an automobile accident on Easter evening. She was part of the new wave of teacher unionism, which is social justice unionism, a commitment not just to the benefits of teachers but to the well-being of students and to their opportunity to have a well-resourced and equitable education.

Teaching for Change posted this beautiful tribute to Liz Davis and her amazing life in DC. It is both a very welcome personal history–and the story of our DC schools.

Indeed, Liz Davis’s work as the head of the Washington Teachers’ Union has lived larger in my life as a DCPS parent than that of all other DC education leaders I have known put together—and touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of other DC residents. Just since the start of 2021, my email inbox has broadly distributed messages from Liz about needed action on nearly every current pressing matter in DC education, including the research practice partnership, DCPS re-opening, PARCC testing, a survey about teacher computers, re-examining school governance, and school librarians being excessed.

Our mayor may be in control of our schools—but no mayor, and no other elected or appointed leader in DC, has ever been in command of DC education advocacy and justice like Liz Davis. Her tenacity in the face of injustice has been both balm and shield for everyone who has battled for better schools in DC.

Yet always, always, behind everything I ever knew she did or said was that quiet, unflagging belief in a better, more equitable future, which seems to be the legacy of every great teacher. When I chose to sue DC over the chancellor selection panel excluding teachers, parents, and students and had only a few plaintiffs, Liz Davis simply put me in touch with a teacher who agreed to be a plaintiff. Then, without a word otherwise, Liz had the WTU submit an amicus brief. That document was indeed a friend (per the Latin word amicus) in what was for me, a DCPS parent, a notably unfriendly proceeding.

It is hard for me to believe that someone who was so alive is gone–and so suddenly. 

The last email I got from Liz was a letter to the chancellor about IMPACT, DCPS’s teacher review process. Fittingly, it came on April Fool’s Day.

Her last phone call to me was Easter morning, when she left a voicemail about a special education committee meeting this week she thought I might want to know about–and then noted what she thought were two important posts from this blog regarding IMPACT (here and here).

How lucky have we been to have known Liz Davis–and what a great teacher we have lost.

The Brookings Institution published a study of the D.C. school system, which is almost evenly divided between public schools and charter schools. It was written by three scholars: Vanessa Williamson, Brookings Institution; Jackson Gode, Brookings Institution; and Hao Sun, Gallaudet University. The title of their study is “We All Want What’s Best for Our Kids.” Their findings are based on close reading of an online parent forum called “DC Urban Moms,” where school choice is an important topic.

What they found is not surprising. Choice intensifies and facilitates racial and socioeconomic segregation. This is the same phenomenon that has been documented in choice programs everywhere. The most advantaged parents master the system and get their children into what is perceived as the “best schools.” The “best schools” are those that have the most advantaged students.

The study begins:

Public education in the District includes a system of traditional public schools and a system of public 8
charter schools; in 2018–19, these schools served over 90,000 students at 182 schools. The city is highly diverse, as is the incoming school-age population. Among children under five, 48 percent are Black, 27 percent are white non-Hispanic, and 17 percent are Hispanic.9 54 percent of the city’s public school students are in traditional (DCPS) public schools, while 46 percent are in public charter schools (DCPCS). All students have the right to attend their local public school, or they can enter a lottery for a seat at another traditional public school or public charter school.10


In practice, parents’ school choices are limited. Housing in Washington is strongly segregated by race and class, with popular schools generally located in expensive or rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.11 Housing prices in the District are high and rising, and affordable housing is in exceptionally short supply.12 The District’s school system does not provide regular school bus transportation; children can ride public transit to school for free, but commutes can be long, and it is often impractical for working parents to accompany young children to a school that is far from home.13 Most students attend a school in their own wards, with students in poorer parts of the city facing longer commutes.14


In making decisions about where to send their children to school, parents (and especially more privileged parents) are key contributors to school segregation and inequality.


Even for parents willing or able to enroll their children far from home, there remain fewer options than might first appear. The most popular traditional public schools rarely have spaces available to students who live beyond the school’s catchment area. Popular charter schools often have waitlists of hundreds of students.15 Moreover, researching the schools available via the lottery requires time and resources; school lottery waitlists are dominated by families that are more socioeconomically privileged.16


In making decisions about where to send their children to school, parents (and especially more privileged parents) are key contributors to school segregation and inequality. As the District of Columbia Auditor’s office has stated, “there is a pattern of District families moving away from schools with more students considered at-risk17 to schools with fewer students considered at-risk. These moves are facilitated by the robust choice model in DC.”18

Richard P. Phelps was hired by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to oversee testing, which was a crucial element in her plans to “reform” the district and raise test scores. During his time there, outsiders raised questions about whether there was widespread cheating on tests.

Phelps addresses those questions in this post.

He begins:

Ten years ago, I worked as the director of assessments for DCPS. For temporal context, I arrived after the first of the infamous test cheating scandals and left just before the incident that spawned a second. Indeed, I filled a new position created to both manage test security and design an expanded testing program. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray, who opposed an expanded testing program, defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary. My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as chancellor.

The recurring test cheating scandals of the Rhee-Henderson years may seem extraordinary but, in fairness, DCPS was more likely than the average U.S. school district to be caught because it received a much higher degree of scrutiny. Given how tests are typically administered in this country, the incidence of cheating is likely far greater than news accounts suggest, for several reasons:

–in most cases, those who administer tests—schoolteachers and administrators—have an interest in their results;

–test security protocols are numerous and complicated yet, nonetheless, the responsibility of non-expert ordinary school personnel, guaranteeing their inconsistent application across schools and over time;

–after-the-fact statistical analyses are not legal proof—the odds of a certain amount of wrong-to-right erasures in a single classroom on a paper-and-pencil test being coincidental may be a thousand to one, but one-in-a-thousand is still legally plausible; and

–after-the-fact investigations based on interviews are time-consuming, scattershot, and uneven.

Still, there were measures that the Rhee-Henderson administrations could have adopted to substantially reduce the incidence of cheating, but they chose none that might have been effective. Rather, they dug in their heels, insisted that only a few schools had issues, which they thoroughly resolved, and repeatedly denied any systematic problem.

Phelps’ articles were originally published at the Nonpartisan Education Review. They were reposted on Valerie Jablow’s blog.

Richard P. Phelps recounts his experiences as the director of assessment for Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Phelps was expected to expand the notorious IMPACT testing program, meant to evaluate teachers. Phelps visited hundreds of administrators and teachers and asked their advice about how to make the program better. They gave him good ideas, and he passed them on to top staff as recommendations. The professionals’ advice was rejected by two top reformers.

Phelps’ article was posted on the blog of D.C. activist Valerie Jablow. She acknowledged its origin in this editor’s note:

[Ed. Note: In part 1 of this series, semi-retired educator Richard P. Phelps provided a first-hand account of what went down in DCPS as ed reformers in the early days of mayoral control pushed standardized tests; teacher evaluations based on those tests; and harsh school penalties. This second part looks at the cheating scandals that arose in the wake of such abusive practices. Such accounts are all the more important now that the DC auditor has just released a bombshell report of poor stewardship of DC’s education data. Both articles appeared in Nonpartisan Education Review in September 2020 and are reprinted here with permission. For this part, the author gratefully acknowledges the fact-checking assistance of retired DCPS teacher Erich Martel and DC school budget expert Mary Levy.]

Phelps came to realize that the “reformers” really didn’t care about improving education or helping children. They were padding their resumes, building their career prospects in the lavishly funded reform world.

Phelps writes:

Alas, much of the activity labelled “reform” was just for show, and for padding resumes. Numerous central office managers would later work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Numerous others would work for entities supported by the Gates or aligned foundations, or in jurisdictions such as Louisiana, where ed reformers held political power. Most would be well paid.

Their genuine accomplishments, or lack thereof, while at DCPS seemed to matter little. What mattered was the appearance of accomplishment and, above all, loyalty to the group. That loyalty required going along to get along: complicity in maintaining the façade of success while withholding any public criticism of or disagreement with other in-group members.

Unfortunately, in the United States what is commonly showcased as education reform is neither a civic enterprise nor a popular movement. Neither parents, the public, nor school-level educators have any direct influence. Rather, at the national level, U.S. education reform is an elite, private club—a small group of tightly connected politicos and academics—a mutual admiration society dedicated to the career advancement, political influence, and financial benefit of its members, supported by a gaggle of wealthy foundations (e.g., Gates, Walton, Broad, Wallace, Hewlett, Smith-Richardson).

Despite their failures, the elites who led DCPS moved on to remunerative positions. The game goes on. And it’s not “for the children.”